SALT LAKE CITY — Meat & Potato Theatre’s adaptation of Beowulf opens on the great hall of Heorot where a dwindling tribe of Danes are besieged by the monster Grendel. Suffering heavy losses, King Hrothgar sends a messenger on the desperate errand to find a champion to redeem Heorot. The messenger eventually seeks the renowned warrior Beowulf, only to find him aged and reluctant to take up his sword. This wizened Beowulf has long since retired from battle and has taken up a prosperous mercantile business in its place.
The genius of Tobin Atkinson and Marynell Hinton’s script is not just bringing an epic story to the stage, but also portraying the values of the people who would have passed it down over a millennium ago. The desire to be remembered for valorous deeds is just one example among many of these values. And as such, Beowulf is not be tempted by the wealth of Heorot—which is but little in comparison with the fortune of his own trade. Instead, Beowulf is persuaded only by the opportunity to do a brave and selfless deed which would grant him glory in this world and untold rewards in the world-to-come.
Arriving at Heorot, he develops strong ties with both King Hrothgar (Josh Thoemke), the wise king in bitter straits; and the warrior Wiglaf (Anne Louise Brings), a young woman who fights to protect her people because no one else will. His welcome at Heorot is not entirely warm, though, as the conniving Queen Wealtheow (Rebecca Marcotte) sees his arrival as a threat to her sniveling son Unferth’s (Steven Robert Jones) inheritance. But all contention is put temporarily to rest when the blind seer Freywaru (William Richardson) recites a list of Beowulf’s brave deeds and prophesies of more to come.
And thus commence Beowulf’s battles. Each battle scene was choreographed (by Enid Atkinson) with several actors to a puppet and executed with beautiful precision. My favorite of the puppet battles was between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother where the puppets’ motions mimicked swimming. The aqueous illusion was accentuated by rippling lights (designed by Megan Crivello).
Costumes (by K. L. Alberts) and choreography (by Enid Atkinson) combined to bring a supernatural air to many of the characters. As the character of the blind seer Freywaru, William Richardson wore a face mask and a cloak blended of countless colors and textures. His face and hands moved almost fluidly under his hunched form so that his whole being seemed otherworldly. In another example, the twin wolves who guarded the dragon’s den wore mangled fur masks and alternately lunged and rolled about the stage, expressing their innate human playfulness and the animal fierceness they had been cursed with.
The set (designed by Ruth Weisman) consisted of a wooden platform with stairs on either side connected by a walkway and a portal beneath. The wheeled structure was turned one way and another to allow for quick scene changes. This effect was most impressive as the action transitioned seamlessly back and forth between Beowulf and Wiglaff’s simultaneous adventures to the dragon’s den and the troll’s cave.
Jeffrey Ingman’s direction pulled together a visually stunning action adventure story without sacrificing character or plot development. Beowulf (Tobin Atkinson) expressed the savvy of a man who has lived two lives, one of battle and another of business, and been successful in both. The relationships between Beowulf (Atkinson) and the young women he mentored were heartfelt and believable. As the servant Freida, Alexa McPherson combined competence and obedience that blended with Atkinson’s air of paternal generosity toward her. Atkinson’s chemistry with Anne Louise Brings, as Wiglaf, was quite a bit more cantankerous, which made for interesting character development on both sides.
Meat & Potato Theatre’s production of Beowulf dusts off the oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon epic, making its story and characters accessible to modern audiences. The company’s talented cast and crew bring together an action adventure uniquely adapted to the stage that will grip audiences from start to finish.